By Sean Hartnett
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Embroiled in a season of false starts, the Rangers pulled together to deliver a statement victory over the high-powered Dallas Stars on Tuesday night.
You could’ve searched up and down the Rangers’ lineup to find a weak link, but would’ve ended up stumped to find a Blueshirt who didn’t bring it over the entire 60 minutes.
“There’s no doubt that we played a good game tonight,” head coach Alain Vigneault said. “We came out with a good battle level. Execution was good.”
During the top-to-bottom effort, the Rangers won the majority of puck battles, effectively blending athleticism and size — though positional smarts played a significant role. The Rangers got back to sound defensive structure. The Stars were largely kept away from high-scoring areas, as they were often relegated to the perimeter.
Following the win, winger Rick Nash called Dallas “the best offensive team in the league.” Through 42 games, the Western Conference-leading Stars average a league-high 3.45 goals for per game. The Rangers, who’ve largely suffered through bouts of inconsistency — especially in their own end, cleaned up their act in a big way Tuesday.
“We were a lot better in front of our net, keeping a lot of shots to the outside,” alternate captain Marc Staal said. “I thought the past few games, our attention to that area has been a lot better.”
While it was a victory not meant to put the focus on individual contributions, no player better symbolized what the Rangers collectively brought as a team than Nash. He created two shorthanded breakaway chances, the latter resulted in Derek Stepan’s third-period goal. Nash was a monster in all areas, using his 6-foot-4 frame effectively across 200 feet of ice. He finished the night with three assists.
With Chris Kreider unavailable due to a right hand laceration and Emerson Etem a healthy scratch, 25-year-old forward Jayson Megna made his Rangers debut — and what a debut it was. Megna fit right in with Stepan and Nash on the second line. He scored a goal and registered an assist, while also playing 1;53 on the power play.
Credit to Staal for revealing Megna’s dressing room nickname: “Liquid-Hot Megna.” Apparently, the Rangers must be Austin Powers fans.
So, was Tuesday’s win another tease or the real thing? The Rangers have alternated wins and losses over their last five games and haven’t put together back-to-back wins since Nov. 23. A chance to prove they’ve buried their inconsistency will arrive at MSG on Saturday in the form of the NHL-leading Washington Capitals. Should the Rangers produce another 60 minutes of energetic, responsible hockey against the second of consecutive Stanley Cup contenders, we can start to feel like they’re for real.
HARTY’S QUICK HITS:
— Jets center Nick Mangold, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and a slew of Gang Green stars made their presence felt in the lower 100’s. Most popular of the bunch was the boisterous Mangold, who sported a Henrik Lundqvist home jersey.
The hulking offensive lineman positioned himself behind the Dallas bench, banging the glass and engaging in playful banter with the visitors. On at least two occasions, the stray-bearded 307-pounder delivered specific heckling to Stars backup netminder Kari Lehtonen. Just like in “Meet The Parents,” Mangold channeled his inner-Robert DeNiro by giving Lehtonen the “I’ve got my eyes on you” gesture.
— Still believe technology doesn’t play a big role in the modern NHL? Try this on for size. After a third period goal was initially awarded to Stars winger Valeri Nichushkin, Rangers assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson and several defensemen on the bench suspected a missed offside call. According to Vigneault, it only took 10 seconds for video coach Jerry Dineen to review the incident on an iPad application before informing the bench of his findings. Vigneault requested a coach’s challenge and the original call was reversed.
Had Nichushkin’s goal stood, the Stars would have cut the Blueshirts’ advantage to 5-3 with 6:54 left in regulation. As any coach will tell you, the difference between a two-goal and a three-goal lead is tremendous.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey